`Sacred' ground cause for celebration

E. Baltimore meditation garden reaches its third anniversary

September 27, 2004|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,SUN STAFF

Melissa Johnson used to hurry back inside after taking out her garbage so she wouldn't have to eye all the trash piled up in nearby vacant lots or cross paths with drug users who sometimes hung out a few doors down.

But now she pauses to take in what has replaced the urban mess in her East Baltimore neighborhood: a vegetable garden, a nursery and a labyrinth designed as a place of spiritual healing and outdoor prayer.

"When I open my back door and I look out, it's something beautiful to look at," said Johnson, who walks the labyrinth's twisting path every other day. "It's a wonderful blessing. It's the best thing that's happened since I've been here."

A small but enthusiastic group of residents and community leaders from McElderry Park celebrated yesterday the third anniversary of what they call "Sacred Commons" - a group of former abandoned lots along the 600 block of N. Port St. that has been reclaimed and turned into a community sanctuary.

The knee-high trash and drug paraphernalia are gone, replaced by marigolds, black-eyed Susans and a vegetable garden that yields such produce as peppers, Swiss chard and tomatoes. A sign outside the labyrinth explains to visitors what the stone-lined circle is supposed to be:

"A common space for all. A winding path in which you cannot get lost. A place where people can walk to meditate and gain spiritual centering and healing. A witness for the peace and healing that we deserve in our community."

"When we look at this, this says: `We can do anything,'" said Ernest Smith, president of the McElderry Park Community Association.

The site was developed by the community group and Amazing Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church as part of their Amazing Port Street initiative. Volunteers from Civic Works, Baltimore's youth service corps, have also supported the project, providing manpower and machinery to help get the job done.

"We've been trying to expand and reclaim a lot of the vacant spaces in the area," said Shari Edelson, a volunteer with AmeriCorps who manages the perennial nursery.

All summer, Edelson could be found planting seeds and tending to the vegetable garden with a flock of young helpers from the neighborhood. Inevitably, the kids would be surprised when she suggested eating whatever they had just harvested.

"I can eat this, right out of the ground?" they would ask.

Johnson's two daughters, Cierra and Jasmine Spence, toiled in the garden Saturday. They have sampled beans and peppers - but, judging from the looks on their faces, they didn't much care for either.

The two girls walk the labyrinth almost every day. Usually, when they get to the pointed rock in the middle, they stop and pray.

"When you come to the labyrinth, you can talk about God," said Jasmine, 9.

The pastor of Amazing Grace, the Rev. Karen Brau, compared the hard work of transforming the empty lots in her church's shadow to that of a drug addict trying to get clean.

"It's not like a lightning bolt and it's here," she said.

Some days she would find herself working in the garden alone. Then someone else would join her, and then someone else.

"I think it begins to create a kind of energy," she said.

Sacred Commons is, in many ways, a work in progress. Still to come are a garden shed to keep tools and equipment and some kind of water sculpture or pool. Organizers also are working to raise money for something decidedly less green, but equally necessary: a parking lot.

Brau walks the labyrinth when she has a question she wants to ponder or needs to unburden herself from a hard day.

But, of course, she gets her hands dirty, too.

"The weeds keep coming back," she said.

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